There is no music nearly as atmospheric as a song in another language, a language one doesn’t know. Familiar torch songs may dispense the sweet, alcoholic comfort of their lyrics, instrumental scores may swell with their melodrama, but nothing comes close to the sheer pathos of words one can only repeat without comprehension – as resonant yet as empty as drums.
Music in languages one doesn’t know is music for everything that hurts too much to feel in words, or which words turn into something that loses shape, slip-sliding away. Music that one knows only with the body, with what is evoked by and within it.
When I lived outside my country, I listened to M.S. Subbulakshmi, Bhojpuri and Baul songs, and difficult Tamil. I listened to the Kantha Shasthi Kavasam; now I don’t even have it in my iTunes. And M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s 1957 rendition of Suttum Vizhichudar; for some reason it made me think of my grandparents driving down a coast, their children in the backseat, my grandmother complaining about how the speed at which he drove made it hard for her to breathe. Nostalgia is remembering things we didn’t know we were experiencing at the time. It’s also remembering things we didn’t experience, but may as well have.
I stopped listening to that music when I came back. Maybe I didn’t need to. Or maybe the person I had been, the person who had needed it, only existed elsewhere.
I would listen to Lila Downs and Lhasa de Sela so much in my teens that I began to understand the dialogue in Spanish films. The enigma ended in some ways – and deepened in others. I chose multilingualism over mystery. That was worth it.
But Farida Khanum broke my heart for years with that ghazal, and I should have left that honour with her and not handed it over to my own experiences. Aaj jaane ki zid na karo. I discovered eventually what it translated to – don’t leave tonight. And at that point a new layer of meaning glazed over it, the ache of being always the Bond girl and never Bond, always the one having to endure the long ride back from the airport. But until then it meant nothing. And so it meant everything it could possibly mean. Now it can only mean one thing. All that was latent within it is gone.
Perhaps there is something to be said for innocent impressionism. When a song is heard as sound and not story, something special happens. Its semantic spaces broaden. Our understanding draws blanks, and our imaginations fill them in. The human voice becomes an instrument in its own right. The whisper of a throat racked with failure can turn seductive; the grieving crescendo of a mourning song may rouse instead.
There are points in the film of my life where I am happy to not have subtitles. I don’t want to know what the opera my friend was singing years ago, days after he told me his secret, really meant. It may have been a bawdy, or boring, thing. But to me it meant his illness and his mortality, the fragility of that performance itself. Its irretrievability. I don’t want to know what some of the baila of my childhood means, because so much of my creative impulse comes from trying to recreate that time. I need those wide open spaces, for they are my canvases. I used to be a dancer; it was important then to correlate the languages of the body and mind. I used to deconstruct. Now I am happy to just dance.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.